Poetry by Heart is a national recitation competition for 14-18 year olds, held across Britain in early Spring each year. It was started by Sir Andrew Motion, former poet laureate and now involves 100s of schools and students around the country. School heats produce winners and runners up who go onto to compete for the county finals. Then the winners of the county round go onto the regional and national finals held in the hallowed halls of Homerton College, Cambridge, in March. The event is recorded and broadcast by BBC Radio 4, and the footage of previous years is available to view on the Poetry by Heart website. The contestants have to commit two poems to memory to perform on the day: one from pre-1914 and one post, or from the First World War. The fecund competition anthology has a wide selection from Beowulf to 21st Century poets, reflecting the diversity of voices within the British Isles and beyond. To hear these young voices reciting such material is inspiring.
On Wednesday 10th February I co-ordinated and MCed the Gloucestershire Finals at Hawkwood College. The result of a lot of organizing, the day itself ran smoothly, thanks to a team of professionals which I selected: the 3 judges (Jay Ramsay; Gabriel Bradford Millar; and Dominic James, the current Bard of Hawkwood); the accuracy judge and prompt, Anthony Nanson; sound tech support from Chantelle Smith; photography from Fred Chance; and guest poetry from Adam Horovitz; and not forgetting the warm-hearted support of Katie Lloyd-Nunn and her team at Hawkwood. It was a prime example of creative collaboration.
I love providing platforms for people to shine in – and that’s precisely what this afternoon was. We were all there to support the young bards and provide the most conducive space possible for them to perform in. Adam Horovitz gave them some top tips to help them use the mike and the space to the best of their ability. To step up to the mike and perform from memory two poems in front of a crowd of people takes a lot of guts – something I couldn’t have done as a young schoolkid (without serious coaching). But it is enormously empowering – it builds confidence and self-esteem, and such public speaking skills will serve you in good stead for the rest of your life, as will a poem or two up your sleeve: life wisdom at the drop of a hat. I can vouch for this having won the Bard of Bath competition back in 1998 with a feat of memory and creativity (my epic poem, Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath). That was for me, a defining moment, and one that launched my creative career. Perhaps for some of the young contestants of Poetry by Heart, their participation will be the start of a life-time association with the spoken word – it will certainly be a significant experience that will stay with them. Poetry becomes not just something to study, and then forget, after school, but a life-long companion.
Learning a poem by heart embodies its rhythms and wisdom – internalizing it in a way that no intellectualizing could by itself. It becomes a visceral experience that can set your heart pacing. In the same way that performing an exciting myth, legend or folk tale can be a thrilling experience, so too with poetry. You are living the words. The electric current of the initial inspiration is restored to the text and you get a frisson of what inspired the writer in the first place. The poem is resuscitated with meaning, coming alive off the page. It is a phoenix-like act as a poem decades, or even centuries old, becomes a living, breathing thing again – having resonance and vitality to modern ears and minds. The young poet learns the power of the conscious utterance – the magical power of language. They learn to listen, to speak wise and beautiful words, and they learn the power of memory. To make the effort to learn a poem, reciting it again and again until it becomes fixed within the long-term cortex (downloaded to our internal hard-drive, as it were) is to be given the keys to the palace of memory. That vast temple reveals itself and a lifetime of discovery awaits. Away from the ubiquitous devices that dominate modern life we rediscover the breath-taking potential of the human mind.
And surely this is something that all teachers and schools should be supporting – with the funding from government to make it viable. The training of memory is a significant by-product, but more than this it is to return heart and soul to education.
Poetry is good for the soul’s growth. It ennobles us and deepens our humanity.
Initiatives such as Poetry by Heart enable all to tap into and experience the living Bardic Tradition. To discover more about the Bardic Tradition, check out:
Tea with the Bard: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/tea-with-the-bard
Day of the Bard: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/day-of-the-bard
Bard of Hawkwood Contest: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/bard-of-hawkwood-competition
The Bardic Handbook by Kevan Manwaring (Gothic Image, 2006): http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-bardic-handbook.html
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 14 February 2016